Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review - The Social Work of Museums

During our 2012 workshop "Museums 101", I posed the question to the class of whether museums should be engaged in social justice or controversial issues. It sparked a big discussion. Two individuals were especially passionate about it - one thought that museums needed to stay very detached and merely present the facts to the public, allowing them to draw their own conclusions. The other individual argued that as citizens it is our responsibility to speak about social issues and that the museum provides an excellent forum for those discussions.

This brings me to a fairly new addition to our reference library. Lois Silverman's The Social Work of Museums, published by Routledge in 2010. This is a subject that greatly interests me. I see huge and untapped potential in museums' capacity. I also think that we don't give ourselves as much credit as we deserve.

The book wasn't quite what I expected. The author studied social work and so talks a lot about parallels between museology and social work, and how the two could work more together. She references theories and methodologies that will probably be new to a lot of museum workers. But even though we might not have the lingo down, it sounds awfully familiar. Silverman draws on a number of very well known museums and museologists to make her case.

She argues that social work is at the core of our museum identity, dating back to the earliest mousieon. Museums have always been in the business of "meaning-making".
In thinking about how an individual seeks identity and self-awareness, museums contribute to personal growth through the following "key opportunities: group affiliation and membership, role enactment, personal meaning-making, storytelling, and exhibit making. Museums also support self-identity at the societal level by fostering stability and providing support for change". I especially like that last bit about support for change. All too often museums are seen as stale and static institutions. I think we all need to regularly ask ourselves what we are doing to support positive change in our communities. If we can't think of any examples, then we're not realizing our potential or meeting our mandate.

Fostering partnerships and positive group dynamics are also at the core of what we do. Museums offer a safe space for people to bond; to feel like they belong. And when museums partner with other institutions, organizations, and individuals, all parties grow and change and strengthen. Silverman put this quite eloquently in stating that "...groups cannot live by their members alone. Even the most self-sufficient group needs linkage, connections with other groups for resources, support, and the exchange of energy". I'm sure we can all think of a museum or historical society that focuses too much on its internal workings. Maybe they say this is only temporary "while we get our house in order", or maybe this is just how things have always been done. But the fact of the matter is, partnerships are a necessity of life.

There were a number of projects and ideas mentioned in the book that museums are using in Nova Scotia, and I suspect that some of these aren't thought of as social work. Included were partnering teens and the elderly for various reasons (oral history interviews, helping with household chores, etc.), displaying relevant items when family reunions are in town, and helping people research their family tree. All of these services help build connections within the community, help people to understand their identity, and in some cases alleviate hardship.

When I finished reading this, I couldn't help but think that what we really need is a mental shift in the field. We so often state that "museums improve the quality of life", but we rarely position these statements within the realm of social work. So the next time you're in a workshop and someone poses a question about museums' involvement in social work, think about the ways your museum is making your community a better place. I think that will spark an even better discussion.

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